Colour was always going to feature prominently in the aftermath of Siya Kolisi’s appointment as Springbok captain. It was inevitable.
The loose-forward became the first black player to be given the job which previously had only ever been held by white players. The colour connection is fitting because it was another shade, a mixture of both black and white, which helped shape him into the player and person he is today, namely Grey.
Grey High School is an institution in Port Elizabeth, consistently regarded as one of the best public schools in South Africa, from both an academic and sporting perspective. The all-boys school was established in 1856 and is named after Sir George Edward Grey, a former Cape Colony Governor who also founded the renowned Grey College in Bloemfontein. Grey High’s most distinctive landmark is the famed clock tower, which stands prominently in the centre of the school grounds in the leafy suburb of Mill Park, looking over beautifully manicured lawns and brilliant white buildings, which house over 800 learners.
Kolisi’s journey to Grey was never going to be a straightforward one. He grew up in the township of Zwide in Port Elizabeth, a mere 15 kilometres away from the Grey grounds, but a world apart in terms of surroundings. He attended Emsengeni Primary School, where he made a name for himself as a rugby player, so much so that he was selected for the Eastern Province Under 12B side that was set to play in a tournament in the Western Cape.
Destination Mossel Bay. Destination destiny.
“Siya first came to our attention a few months earlier when he played for a club which took on a Grey Junior side in a local tournament,” says Dean Carelse, who is currently Master In Charge of Rugby at another Port Elizabeth school Pearson High, but was a rugby coach and teacher at Grey High at the time. “His team lost by about 50 points, but Siya was clearly a very talented player, as was evident by his selection to the EP team.”
Kolisi was a sensation in Mossel Bay and the powers that be made every effort to get him into Grey, signing him up on a full scholarship, which covered every cost.
His talent was such that he would invariably have been spotted further down the line by another big name school, but there’s no denying that the decision by Grey to enrol him had an unquantifiable impact on his life, and his future.
Carelse, who would go on to become somewhat of a father-figure in Kolisi’s life, first encountered the youngster when he arrived at Grey Junior School in Grade 7.
“I had a few dealings with Siya during his time at Grey Junior, as he was playing for the Under 13A team, while I was coaching Grey High’s Under 14A side. However, I really got to know him when he made the transition to high school, as I became both his hostel master and rugby coach.”
The move from Emsengeni Primary to one of the most prestigious schools in the country, which boasts alma mater of the likes of Graeme and Peter Pollock, Luke Watson and Mike Catt, would have been terrifying for many, but Kolisi adapted extremely well, considering his limited exposure to such an environment.
“He was pretty confident when he arrived at Grey. Being in new surroundings, an unfamiliar hostel and a school with 162 years of tradition should have been daunting, but in true Siya character he took on the challenges in his normal open and confident way. He walked around with a smile on his face from the very beginning, and possessed a strong will that exhibited confidence and warmth.”
Kolisi was proving to be an excellent pupil, but it was as a rugby player where he really made his mark. While he currently stands at 1.88m and tips the scales at over 100kgs, that wasn’t the case during his first year in high school, although it mattered little.
He was physically a late bloomer and was often one of the smaller players on the field during his Under-14 year, but as Carelse explains, his small stature worked to his advantage.
“I think this was a massive benefit for him as he had to be street-smart and think his way around the field as opposed to physically dominating everyone. He read the game extremely well and always found himself at the right place at the right time. In my opinion, his biggest strength during these early days was his ability and willingness to make his teammates look better than himself on the field. He was always eager to pass and let others take the shine through his playmaking and distributing which to this day is still a big characteristic of his play and character.”
“From day one he was a formidable talent. Not so much the star player from a try-scoring perspective in his early years, but the backbone of every team he played for. His work rate, ball skills, defensive intelligence and pure understanding of the game was superb. He was a natural that could sum up situations during matches with ease. He was a pleasure to coach – always the first to arrive at practice and last to leave.”
Kolisi’s rise from Zwide prodigy to Grey royalty was the substance of which dreams are made of, but more so considering the details of his roots. Born to a 16-year-old mother, and raised by his grandmother, Kolisi spent his formative years in a home where his bed consisted of a few pillows strewn across the floor, and food was a rare luxury.
Before leaving Zwide, he experienced the loss of his beloved grandmother, who passed away practically in his arms, while the same fate befell his mother early in his high school career.
“Family members looked after him from time to time,” Carelse says, “and he went through some difficult times whilst in the hostel, and often either stayed in or went to a friend’s house.”
The contrast between his old and new life could not have been greater, yet he decided to embrace the harsh realities of his upbringing, rather than escape them, returning home whenever possible in the face of adversity, as Carelse discovered when he would drop Kolisi off in the school’s vehicle on Saturdays after rugby games.
“Siya would receive scathing comments from community members when he got out of the car dressed in his school uniform. What was remarkable though is that he refused to change outfits, which would no doubt have put an end to the insults. It was this attitude that changed the perception of everyone in the area. He soon became a beacon of hope to those staying in Zwide, and I remember fondly how children used to run to him when we arrived during his first team years, and he would always take time to befriend them.”
His first team years came sooner than expected.
When Kolisi arrived at school on the first day of his Grade 10 year, the hulking man was scarcely recognisable from the bantam boy who had left the grounds a few weeks earlier. Puberty was kind to him during the holiday period, and the now six-foot-tall colossus quickly acquired the nickname “Bear”, which still stands to this day.
Unsurprisingly, his new, improved physique enhanced his playing performances, and having spent the previous two years thinking his way around the rugby field, he could suddenly compliment those skills with a newfound physicality. As a result, he blossomed at first team level, again under the guidance of his mentor Carelse.
“Siya was one of the finest school boy players the school has produced and played in the number seven jersey during his two years in the first team. In Grade 11(2008), the side was ranked number one in the country for the majority of the season and he was instrumental in the success of the team.”
Not only did Kolisi “cruise” into the Eastern Province Craven Week sides in 2008 and 2009, but he was also chosen to represent the South African Schools teams for both those years, selections which Carelse described as “no-brainers”
“He was an immense ball carrier in the midfield and in the outside channels. I don’t think he dropped one ball during his high school career and had an amazing set of skills. He set a brilliant example both on and off the field and his work rate and commitment were exemplary. Siya was always a crowd favourite and was worshipped by the Grey Junior boys who often used to follow him around before and after the game.
Chad Momberg, a Stellenbosch law student who played first team centre for Grey High, was in Grade 8 during Kolisi’s matric year.
“The matric guys were usually arrogant and the position of power they held often got to their heads, but Siya was different,” Momberg remembers. “He was always down to earth and treated everyone as an equal. He never looked down on a Grade 8 pupil and respected everyone, which in turn made us respect him even more, irrespective of what he did on the rugby field. He had a cult following amongst the Grade 8s and we were always keeping an eye on his achievements, whether it be for the first team, EP or SA schools.”
A Grade 8 who got closer than most to the schoolboy rugby star during his matric year was Nick Beswick, another former Grey first team player who was Kolisi’s “newpot” at school, a position which is basically a servant by another name.
“From doing his laundry to waking him up, I was responsible for all of Siya’s needs and wants,” Beswick recalls. “`He was an absolute legend and felt like a genuine friend, even though he was so much older than me. That said, I was petrified of him because of his size, and would’ve done anything he asked. One night he and his two roommates wanted to go out, which was against school rules, so he asked me to sleep in his bed and pretend to be him in case any of the hostel masters showed up. Sure enough, at around 2am one of the masters arrived armed with a torch. I buried my head beneath the duvet, like Siya usually did, and in my deepest voice shouted ‘We’re all here. Please leave!’ Thankfully the level of respect he commanded managed to transcend even his own body, and the hostel master quickly left.”
Being Kolisi’s newpot may have been challenging at times, but the position did have its perks, especially for an aspiring young player like Beswick.
“At one stage, almost every provincial rugby team was after Siya’s signature, and they would often furnish him with gifts to sweeten the deal. He was constantly receiving things like scrum-caps, boots and supplements, but was not interested in any of it, so would often just give it all to me.”
The next chapter of Kolisi’s extraordinary rugby career will begin this weekend when he leads his country out onto the home of rugby in South Africa, Ellis Park. Twenty-three years ago the stadium witnessed the late Nelson Mandela wear a Springbok jersey with the number six emblazoned on the back. On Saturday, a black man will wear it again.
As well as the captain’s armband.